#72 = Volume 24, Part 2 = July 1997
NOTES AND CORRESPONDENCE
Sam Moskowitz, 1920-1997. While still in high school in the mid-'30s, Sam
Moskowitz, who died April 15th, became involved in science-fiction fandom as one
of a few hundred active sf fans who met irregularly in feuding groups of six or
eight, published carbon-copy or hectographed fanzines, and dreamt of a great
national or even international organization. A left-wing group in New York
called the Futurians, led by Donald Wollheim and Frederik Pohl, hoped to
organize a "world sf convention" dedicated to "progressive" causes, but the
18-year-old Moskowitz led a group with other ideas that succeeded in staging the
first convention of note (New York, 1939), one from which the Futurians were
expelled as a disruptive force.
Although supporting himself with routine work, having decided that writing sf
was a poor way to make a living, Moskowitz devoted himself heart and soul to the
sf movement, the most active of fans and the most dedicated of fan-writers.
Cavalier toward and disdainful of scholarly procedures, he plunged into the
history of science fiction in a series of poorly researched articles on
pre-genre writers (Cyrano, Mary Shelley, Verne, Wells, Shiel, Burroughs, et al.)
that appeared in Amazing Stories in the early sixties and were collected
as Explorers of the Infinite in 1963. His second book on sf history,
Seekers of Tomorrow (1966), is much better, being concerned with the sf
writers of his own time and largely of his acquaintance and thus requiring much
less in the way of scholarship. (Even so, many of the writers treated in that
volume, especially those of a more literary bent, protested that he was careless
about facts and didn't really understand their work). Moskowitz then began to
delve into old magazines and newspapers for sf forgotten by or never known to
present-day readers. The result was a valuable series of anthologies with
extensive commentary, of which the first two were Science Fiction by
Gaslight: A History and Anthology of Science Fiction in the Popular Magazines,
1891-1911 (1968) and Under the Moons of Mars: A History and Anthology of
the Scientific Romance in the Munsey Magazines, 1912-1920 (1970), the latter
being also a history of sf in all the popular magazines of the period. The
commentary in these books reveals an unacknowledged mission, revising literary
history in a way that would raise the status of his favorite authors. Thus Mary
Shelley is more important in the history of literature than her husband, Edgar
Rice Burroughs is a greater novelist than H.G. Wells, etc., etc. Although there
is some evidence that Moskowitz had not read all the works on which he passed
judgment (in Under the Moons of Mars, Wells's Love and Mr Lewisham
is called "a pleasant love story" ), the factual statements in these books
are generally accurate. Moskowitz's research into the history of sf, though less
valuable than it would be if adequately documented, has been of such heroic
proportions that we are all in his debt. Even though he was a fierce
controversialist when aroused, he seems to have held no grudges. The sf
community is much the poorer for his passing.—RDM.
Back to Kansas. In the previous issue of SFS, I
proposed a tentative foundation for a new way of looking at sf—"naive
criticism." The essay was written, deliberately, as a hyperbolic backlash
against postmodern sf criticism. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., answered with a
lengthy critique of my article. I would like to clarify certain aspects of my
essay, which I think he dismissed too quickly.
Postmodernism can be a useful critical approach; it would be difficult to
discuss, e.g., The Fifth Head of Cerberus or Dhalgren without
recourse to postmodern concepts of language and identity. But I feel that
postmodern theory is ill-suited to the task of optimally exploring those
qualities which set genre sf apart from other literature, because sf is,
I think, fundamentally naive. When I say that it is "naive," I use the word in a
very specific context: sf is naive vis-à-vis postmodern theory in terms of its
assumptions about language.
Sf requires a more naive view of language than "mundane" fiction does.
Postmodern theory challenges the assumption that when we say the word "cat,"
there is a straighforward relationship between the spoken signifier ("cat") and
received "signified" (the concept of cat), postulating instead that the
relationship between language and perception is extremely problematic. This is
true. However, we can, at the very least, find a cat, point to it, and say,
"When I say `cat,' this is what I am referring to." We have a "mundane," outside
reality we can see and touch. The relationship may be complex, but at least we
have the objective reality as a point of reference. In sf, we don't have that
luxury—when discussing, e.g., one of Le Guin's Gethenians, we cannot find a
Gethenian, point to it, and say, "Look, this is what I'm referring to."
The relationship between sf and objective reality is tenuous enough without
the addition of postmodern complications. As much as we need to suspend our
disbelief when we enter the fictional worlds of sf, we often need to suspend our
postmodernity as well. This act of willed naiveté, so to speak, while
unproductive in the reading of a minority of experimental sf works, can be of
benefit in the discussion of much genre sf. Yes, language is deceptive and
unstable, as postmodern critics tell us, but we may lose something of value if
our approach to sf is relentlessly postmodern, because sf's own assumptions
about language are usually not postmodern. We must recognize that sf fiction
believes, naively, even bravely, that language can somehow describe objects
alien to our own world, can meaningfully portray the bizarre, alien, impossible.
Sf takes us far away from everyday reality; in order for us to glean anything of
value from such fictions, they must be defined against a stable and known
reality—i.e., our reality—which sf generally takes for granted and feels can be
adequately represented through language. Of course, we must accept what we are
being told with a grain of salt, but we should accept it to some extent, then
see what can be gained.
That is what I mean by naiveté in sf criticism—an acceptance of sf's approach
to language—not that we should see sf as a literature of escape; or that I
consider works to be sf or not based on whether they depress me or not; or that
there are no problems in the historical world which sf, and literature in
general, must deal with.
Rather, what is naive about sf is its approach to problems in the
historical world. Through its fictional constructions, sf often, implicitly or
explicitly, posits answers to social/ethical/moral issues. It does so with
"moral seriousness," as Csicsery-Ronay disparagingly remarks; or, as Joanna Russ
has remarked elsewhere, science fiction is didactic. Sf writers use the
tools of the genre to express their view of moral/religious/ethical/metaphysical
truth. There is nothing simple about truth, nor am I advocating simple
black/white distinctions, narrow-minded essentialist arguments which refuse to
entertain complexities. On the contrary, what I like about sf is that its many
authors offer the reader many "truths"; none of them, of course, are
unequivocally true, but they can challenge, remake, or reinforce our own
personal opinion of "truth." For this to happen, I think it's necessary to allow
the writer to make the point he or she wants to make, to accept a naive view of
language— and then, once we have established, insofar as it's possible to do so,
what the writer is saying, we can look at it rigorously, critically,
questioningly; we can be postmodern. Naturally, we are free to doubt, reject,
modify the didactic "truth" being expressed, but if we don't even allow the text
to express its didactic claim in its own naive fashion, then we miss the
possibility of being enlightened by a Russ or a Le Guin or a Card, whose works
can tell us much of value about our world if we allow them to.
Csicsery-Ronay calls his counter-argument "We're Not in Kansas Anymore." But
I would like to know what we're going to do when we get back to Kansas. After
all, Oz is a dream; the sf text is a fiction. I think we should accept Oz
naively, as Dorothy does, and similarly accept the sf text naively, until we
return. Once we get back, we can interrogate and analyze it and subject it
to our most postmodern inquiry, if we so choose—but only when we get back to
Kansas, not while we're away in dreamland. We should use our postmodern
skepticism to examine the author's conclusions, rather than obfuscating those
conclusions. Otherwise, we can't take anything meaningful back to Kansas with us
from our fictional journey, while a more naive approach to an sf text may allow
us to bring back more of value to our real, everyday lives than the strictly
postmodern approach allows.—David Dalgleish.
On Samuelson's Review of Reading by Starlight. I suppose I should
be grateful to find four pages of SFS devoted to a review of my book, Reading
By Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction. May I respond to some of Professor
Samuelson's errors or misconceptions?
His rather plodding paraphrase of my argument opens with the odd claim that
my early admiration of Samuel R. Delany's work was declared in "Bruce Sterling's
Australian sf fanzine." This is not an encouraging start, since Sterling is a
notable Texan, and would have been in his teens at the time. He means Bruce
Gillespie's SF Commentary. It is true that all Australians are named
Bruce, but only some Bruces are Australian. I'm not really miffed by this
blunder, because I've been known to trip over my own feet. In Starlight,
I bizarrely refer (p. 15) to "Roger Bacon's Screaming Popes." Perhaps the
Franciscan friar upset a pontiff or two in his day, but I meant Francis Bacon
(and not the one who is thought to have formulated the empirical method). I did
it again in the Afterword to my recent novel, The White Abacus (Avon,
1997), where I acknowledged the influence of Harold Bloom's A Map of
Misprision, a misprision of his true title, A Map of Misreading.
It is annoying, however, to be misinformed that Starlight is a version
of a doctoral thesis "on Delany." My dissertation, "Frozen Music" (Deakin
University, 1990) has now been published in three separate volumes: The
Architecture of Babel: Discourses of Literature and Science (Melbourne
University Press, 1994), Reading by Starlight (which, although Samuelson
calls it a "relatively slim volume," comprises some 80,000 words), and Theory
and Its Discontents (Deakin UP, 1997). Leaving aside bibliographies and
indices, these total in excess of 500 pages, of which perhaps only a fifth deal
with Delany's theories and fiction.
Samuelson closes by claiming that I identify "with what he calls (but I
don't) a `posthumanist' position." I used that term twice: firstly, I referred
to Frank Cioffi's reading of sf as a "disturbing portrait of humans at the mercy
of their physical and cultural environment, shared in certain respects by
poststructuralist analyses of the posthumanist condition...located within the
traditional codes of sf construction." Second, I praised Walter Jon Williams'
handling, in Aristoi, of "his posthuman characters." Since I have
recently published an entire book subverting poststructural and antihumanist
verities (Theory and Its Discontents), I do not acknowledge my alleged
Finally, I suppose I must address the tired complaint that I, as a
contemporary theorist/critic, use "overloaded sentences which, when unpacked,
fail to justify their abstract terminology," and that I do so in order to be
"impressive." Like sf itself, all specialized discourses develop their own
vernacular. Sometimes the goal is compression and precision, sometimes it is to
claim political and practical control over boundaries—a hopeless task, but one
that never ceases, ironically exemplified in Professor Samuelson's own protest.
If one wishes to make such a charge stick, one needs to give specific examples
and argue them. Otherwise . . . get over it.—Damien Broderick, Melbourne.
In Response to Damien Broderick. Of course the Bruce I meant was
Gillespie not Sterling. I see in Broderick's letter, however, no other
embarrassing misstatements. I said his book "covers the same territory" as his
dissertation, which he now admits, along with two other books mined from his
academic study (more than I could ever do). My summary surely is "plodding"
compared to his darting from topic to topic, which it reveals in stark outline.
He devotes one-third of his pages to Delany, whose presence broods over the rest
of the book, and who is the only extended example justifying his subtitle.
If identifying him as "post-humanist" was in error and somehow insulting, it
was an honest mistake, based partly on Broderick's style and practice. I was
also going on record to say that I do not see post-structuralism and the
post-modern as post-humanist, whether he identifies with them or not (apparently
my sentence was overloaded). My review of Cioffi is also on record [Science
Fiction and Fantasy Book Review 11 (January-February 1983) 8-9].
As for Broderick's prose excesses, I did in fact quote examples and ended the
review with only a minimal complaint. Reviewers rarely dissect every bad example
in a book to instruct the writer and bore the reader. I'll be glad to do so if
he submits something to SFS which I am asked to edit. Meanwhile, I will seek the
other volumes carved from his dissertation for my own edification, if not to
review. Higher praise a writer cannot get.—David N. Samuelson, CSU Long
It Still Rotates. Perhaps the most famous scene in all science fiction is
that in which the Time Traveller, realizing that he is nearing the end of his
journey, muses on the end of all things:
At last, some time before I stopped, the sun, red and very large, halted
motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome glowing with a dull heat, and now and
then suffering a momentary extinction.... I perceived by this slowing down of
its rising and setting that the work of the tidal drag was done. The earth had
come to rest with one face to the sun, even as in our own time the moon faces
Of the critics who have have been led by this passage to speak of celestial
mechanics, some, perhaps all, have misunderstood the principles involved, saying
that "the planet has ceased to revolve" (Anthony West, "H.G. Wells,"
Encounter 8:52-59, 1957); "the earth has ceased to rotate" (Bernard Bergonzi,
"The Publication of The Time Machine 1894-5," Review of English
Studies, n.s., 11:42-51, 1957; The Early H.G. Wells: A Study of the
Scientific Romances [Manchester: Manchester UP, 1961], 59); "the earth has
ceased to rotate on its axis" (Frank D. McConnell, ed., H.G. Wells, The Time
Machine and The War of the Worlds [NY: Oxford UP, 1977] 93, n.2); "the earth
no longer rotates" (Reinhold Kramer, "The Machine in the Ghost: Time and
Presence in Varley's Millennium," Extrapolation 32:156-69, 1991);
"the earth has now stopped rotating on its axis" (Leon Stover, ed., H.G. Wells,
The Time Machine...A Critical Text.... [Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996],
158, n. 222).
But long before Wells's time it had been ascertained that any orbiting moon
or planet that keeps one face to the parent body must slowly rotate on its axis,
with the period of its rotation (its "day") being equal to its period of orbit
around the parent body (its "year"). This is the case with the earth's moon and
is the case Wells envisages for the earth in "The Further Vision" when the tidal
drag of the sun on the earth has done its work. The phrases "the sun... halted
motionless on the horizon" and "the earth had come to rest" are relative
expressions only, meaning that the sun and the earth appear motionless relative
to each other from the point of view of an observer on earth (the Time Traveller).
This is quite different from the statement that the earth has "ceased to
rotate." The "absolute" motion of the earth continues: the earth still orbits
the sun and still rotates on its axis, albeit slowly.—B.D. Sommerville,
Randwick, New South Wales.
The Revival of Interest in Mary Shelley. In SFS #71 David Ketterer speaks
of the phenomenal awakening of interest in Mary Shelley, without specifying the
most remarkable product of that awakening. Last year, in good time for the bi-centennary
of her birth, the firm of William Pickering published The Novels and Selected
Works of Mary Shelley in 8 vols, Roy 8vo, in Oxford blue cloth with green
labels. Good paper, excellent print. This sumptuous edition—with footnotes at
the bottom of the page—has Nora Crook as General Editor, with the indefatigable
Betty T.Bennett as Consulting Editor for the Frankenstein volume, and
various editors for the other novels. Jane Blumberg edits The Last Man.
This edition is a wonder and must give all sf writers a little hope. Maybe in
the twenty-second century, some far-sighted publisher—but I'm dreaming!
—Brian W. Aldiss, Oxford.
The "Lost" Jules Verne. Brian Taves' review of the "lost" Jules Verne is
right on the mark, but the "loss" of the novel until a few years ago brings up
some interesting questions which, as far as I know, have not yet been addressed.
When the news of Paris in the Twentieth Century first broke, it seemed
too good to be true, and I'm sure that I wasn't the only one who wondered if it
might be a hoax—like, say, the Vinland map. By "too good to be true," I mean for
scholars and critics, of course; as Taves observes, "probably readers
should be pleased that Verne followed Hetzel's advice and concentrated on
adventurous science fiction." But now that the authenticity of the novel is
beyond question, scholars and critics can have a field day: was Verne living (or
at least writing) a lie in the voyages extraordinaires, concealing his
true dystopian vision of science and "progress"? Or did he—like many others—
perhaps have different views or feelings at different times? Should we look more
closely for the hidden subtexts of even his most "optimistic" works?
Then there is the field of speculation, the what ifs. What if Paris in the
Twentieth Century had been published in the 1860s? Would it have advanced
the evolution of sf at one step from the invention story/travel tale to the
sociological dystopia? Or would it, as Hetzel believed, simply have destroyed
Verne's career? Beyond even these questions, however, is a mystery that I
believe begs for a solution. Why did Verne never attempt to have Paris in the
Twentieth Century published later, perhaps in a revised/updated version?
We know about "In the the 29th Century" which appeared in 1889 and was, as
Taves notes, "written primarily by Verne's son Michel." We know that Albert
Robida published The Twentieth Century in 1882, and Verne can scarcely
have been unaware of it—especially since Robida had earlier published a
deliberate parody of the voyages imaginaires. Not having known of
Paris in the Twentieth Century, it was easy for us to assume that Verne had
little or no interest in tales set in the future, and that "In the 20th Century"
was just a throwaway piece in which his only role was to indulge his son. We
know better now. But why didn't Verne take advantage of Robida's success to have
his own futuristic novel published? He can't have been afraid he would be
accused of stealing Robida's idea, for Hetzel could have established that
Verne's novel had been written two decades earlier. Was he simply afraid Robida
had upstaged him, and that it wasn't worth the trouble to claim priority in the
invention of the futuristic tale? He surely can't have forgotten about his own
work; it's hard to believe he wouldn't have discussed it with Michel anent "In
the 29th Century."
I note that there is no mention of Robida in Herbert R. Lottman's Jules
Verne: An Exploratory Biography, which does cover the whole affair of
Paris in the Twentieth Century. Perhaps the French critics are already on a
trail he missed. Or perhaps the trail is too cold to follow at this date. But if
there is anything to be learned from all this, I'm sure I'm not the only one who
would love to learn it.—John J. Pierce, Bloomfield.
SF Round Table at Esse/4, Debrecen. European readers, please note! There
will be a Round Table on Science Fiction and Fantasy at the 4th conference of
the European Society for the Study of English (Europe's answer to the MLA), to
be held at Debrecen, Hungary, on September 5-9, 1997. The purpose of the Round
Table is to bring together teachers and researchers on sf and fantasy in
European universities and, if possible, to establish a network. The organizers
are Patrick Parrinder (University of Reading, UK) and Denise Terrel (Université
de Nice-Sophia Antipolis, France). For further information contact me by email
at J.P.Parrinder@reading.ac.uk or by fax at +44 (118) 9316561.—Patrick
Parrinder, University of Reading.
Moreau and Plaxy Redivivus. In a note in #71 I spoke of Mary Doria
Russell's The Sparrow as the novel most effectively joining novelistic
and sf traits that I had read in many years and also said that I would not be at
all surprised if it came to rival The Left Hand of Darkness in popularity
among sf academics. Now comes Lives of the Monster Dogs by one Kirsten
Bakis, published (by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and reviewd (in NYTBR) as a
mainstream novel. While I doubt that it will achieve the commercial success of
The Sparrow (a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection) or equal The Sparrow
(winner of the 1996 Tiptree Award) in academic sf prestige, I think it an even
better novel, stronger in novelistic virtues and adequate in its sf basis. The
enthusiastic NYTBR reviewer did not make the obvious comparison with
The Island of Dr Moreau even though the "monster dogs" are carved into human
stature and intelligence by a mad scientist.
Another very good mainstream novel with an sf basis is Peter Goldsworthy's
Wish: A Biologically Engineered Love Story, published in Australia but
apparently not yet in the US or the UK. Here comparison with Stapledon's
Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord is more appropriate than with
Moreau, for the geneticists who raise Wish, a female gorilla, to human
intelligence are not mad in the same sense as Moreau or as Kirsten Bakis's
Prussian vivisectionist (whose intent was to create an invincible army for the
Second Reich). Wish extrapolates from current experimental methods of
communicating with apes. Wish's Plaxy—the narrator—is a teacher of Sign. The
novel is eloquent on sign language, the lives of the deaf, and animal rights.
(My thanks to Dr Bruce Shaw for sending me a copy of Wish.)—RDM.
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